Head of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Tom Wheeler is to circulate a proposal that will set out new rules to preserve the free and open internet and could potentially resolve the debate over net neutrality.
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In an article published on Wired, Wheeler wrote: “The internet must be fast, fair and open. That is the message I’ve heard from consumers and innovators across this nation. That is the principle that has enabled the internet to become an unprecedented platform for innovation and human expression. And that is the lesson I learned heading a tech startup at the dawn of the internet age.”
Net neutrality, defined by the inventor of the web Tim Berners-Lee as the idea that every packet of data passing across the network must be treated equally, has become a battle ground between those that believe that this principle must be respected and telco interests that want to charge internet firms money based on how much use they make of the infrastructure.
The fear among advocates of net neutrality is that allowing such a charging structure would create a two-speed internet, where companies that could afford to pay would be in a so-called fast lane. They believe that relegating those that could not afford to, or refused to pay, will damage innovation and even freedom of speech.
In September 2014, a number of internet firms – among them Netflix and Twitter – conducted a day-long internet slowdown protest after the FCC voted in favour of allowing network owners to start charging.
On this side of the Atlantic, the European parliament has been a staunch advocate of net neutrality and recently, EE, Virgin Media and Vodafone all signed up to back it.
U-turn if we want to
According to Wheeler, the decision to reverse tack over net neutrality at the FCC came about for a number of reasons – not least the sheer weight of public opinion and the decision of president Barack Obama to come out in favour of net neutrality as a result.
In his article, Wheeler acknowledged the desire of broadband network owners to optimise their assets – that is, to make more money – but said that may not always be the best outcome for the general public.
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He pointed out that the internet would not exist in its current form had the FCC not mandated open access for network equipment in the 1960s and forced the telco to open its copper network to others.
Wheeler cited his own experience, having run a company that ran data services over cable TV lines while competitor AOL had access to the open phone network. His own company went bust because he could not get the operators to give him access to their cable, while AOL went on to become a major internet service provider.
He said that he had believed the FCC could maintain internet openness by using existing legislation to determine "commercial reasonableness" but following a court ruling in favour of this, became worried that it might not be interpreted as what is reasonable for consumer interests.
As a result of these factors, Wheeler has now proposed that the FCC use its Title II authority to enforce clear rules that will ban prioritisation of network traffic for money and outlaw blocking and throttling of legal content. These rules would also be applied to mobile broadband.
He insisted this would be possible without holding back investment in broadband networks, and offered up new incentives to encourage US network operators such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon to continue to invest by modernising Title II to eliminate rate regulation, tariffs and last-mile unbundling.
The proposal also includes a general conduct rule that can be invoked to stop future “new and novel” threats to the internet, although how those will be classified, Wheeler did not say.
The Republican Party were quick to condemn Wheeler’s proposals as symptomatic of president Barack Obama "bullying" some multi-billion dollar businesses.
It seems certain the FCC’s revised plan will be fought over in court.